A teacher at Life School College Prep, a charter middle school for grades five through eight, has resigned after a group of parents withdrew their children from the school to protest his teaching style and the subject matter introduced in his classroom.
Dale Myers, 56, tendered his resignation last week, after 12 students had been removed from the first-year school.
"It just wasn't worth it to fractionalize the school anymore," Myers said, "so I have resigned."
A major factor in his decision, the former lawyer said, was a conflict with the school's director and its only other teacher, Patrick Tatum.
"He and I have radically different views of children," Myers said. "Here you have a two-room schoolhouse where the two teachers did not get along.
"We both have very strong views about the educational process. He's a strict disciplinarian, and I'm more laid back."
Parents of the 12 students who were removed from Life School said that Myers discussed homosexuality and evolution in the classroom, that he required students to read books that were sexually explicit and inappropriate for their ages, and that he "trashed the founding fathers" by pointing out that some of them kept slaves.
"Two of my girls were among those who were taken out of school," said Kathleen Converti, a parent who was formerly secretary of the school's parents advisory board. "He was pushing the agenda of the (American Civil Liberties Union) and the (National Education Association)."
The Payson school, currently in its first year of operation, is affiliated with Life School College Prep, a group of eight schools with headquarters in Mesa. In addition to schools in the Valley, Life School, which was Arizona's first charter school, has schools in Show Low, St. Johns, Pima and Payson.
Paula Banda, director of curriculum for Life Schools, came to Payson to observe Myers' classroom when parents first complained.
"There were two teaching styles going on in that school, that of Mr. Myers and that of Mr. Tatum," she said. "Mr. Myers' paperwork was fine. His record-keeping was fine. His curriculum outlines were fine.
"I looked at his manuals and his course outlines. I did not see anything objectionable. I saw no evidence of what that group of parents said they saw," she said.
Among the works that some parents found objectionable were "The Odyssey," "Lord Jim," "Pride and Prejudice," Shakespeare's sonnets, Emily Dickinson's poetry and the Bible.
Myers said, however, that he never considered the subject matter questionable or inappropriate.
"One girl was giving a report on Emily Dickinson and mentioned that one critic thinks she might have been homosexual," Myers said. "The kids laughed and I told them to focus on her as a writer and not worry about her sexual orientation. I guess that's what they mean by introducing homosexuality into the classroom."
Colleen Hoernke, also a former officer of the parents advisory board and the first parent to pull her child out of Life School, said Myers simply dealt with too many controversial issues.
"He just doesn't understand the age group he is teaching," she said. "Those are subjects that no one except a child's parents should talk to him about. His curriculum just wasn't age-appropriate."
Myers said parents were told what he intended to teach in his classroom and none complained. "I sent out my reading list to all the parents and received not one objection," he said.
Tatum, who said the rift between Myers and some of the parents widened while he was on sick leave for several months, also decided that Myers' curriculum was too mature.
"It was more for high school students," he said.
But Tatum also dismissed much of the problem as growing pains.
"We're just like any other new business," he said. "We knew we were going to struggle in the first year."
However, he said, some of the students who withdrew earlier in the year are now back in the charter school's classrooms.
"Our current enrollment is 45 students, and that's the highest it has been all year," he said. "We had four students come back this week alone."
Myers, who said he went into teaching after 30 years of practicing law, attributes the gulf between his teaching style and some of the parents' educational philosophies to a misrepresentation of the school's focus and purpose.
"Many of them believe this is supposed to be a Christian school," he said. "It's not. It's a public school. I had parents call and complain because I was having students read the book of Genesis in the Bible. I was teaching it for the poetry and not as the word of God.
"Whether you believe it's the word of God or not is personal," Myers said. "But I got so much flack I stopped doing it."
Nevertheless, he said, teaching subjects such as history and geography often means delving into controversial areas.
"I told these parents that it's not my job to mold minds," he said. "My job is to give information and teach kids to think."
Sheila Antenen, president of the parents advisory board, chose to keep her child in the school despite the controversy.
"We were really excited about Mr. Myers at first," Antenen said. "I never doubted his teaching ability. He just chose to do some of his own stuff, and that got him into trouble."
Jim Alverson, executive director of Life School, said part of the problem is that the school was not really designed for rural areas.
"We were pulled into these smaller areas by parents or by teachers who wanted to move there," he said. "We weren't too excited about coming to Payson because our success in small communities kind of rises and falls on the strength of the founder. When Patrick had health problems, that kind of exacerbated our weakness. Payson is remote for us, and there was nobody to monitor the situation."
In some instances, Banda added, parents don't understand what charter schools are all about, and that can create friction.
"They don't always understand that their dream is not the director's dream, and unfortunately there are those who will walk away because it is not exactly what they want it to be," she said.
Tatum said Life School now has a new teacher, and he is optimistic that the school is back on track.
"The parents have been super supportive through all this," he said.
But, he added, "This is not the right environment for everyone."